Sunday, June 24, 2012

Writing Bad Indians: A Short History of a Long Project

Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir ... In some ways, it feels as if I have been writing this book all my life.  I was born in Los Angeles, the only child of Alfred Miranda, an Esselen-Chumash man, and Madgel Miranda, a woman of European ancestry.  
Mom, me, Dad circa 1962

When I was three, my parents divorced.  My mother remarried when I was five and we moved to Washington State after I finished kindergarten.  Those first five years in California remained a crucial part of my identity.  In Washington, I was the only Indian kid in any of my classes for the rest of my public school career.  I looked different, I felt different, and I knew from the silences and absences in and around me that I had lost something, something I could not describe but which, to myself, I called “home,” and the ache itself inside me, “homesick.”

Home (with Duffy, our bull mastiff, on guard), circa 1969.
For most of my remaining childhood, we lived in an old trailer in the woods on the outskirts of Kent, Washington.  We’d always been low-income, but after my step-father and mother divorced when I was ten, my mom and I went on welfare, struggling to get by.  My mother was a strong and intelligent woman who came into her strengths late in life, earning an Associate’s Degree in Librarian Sciences from Highline Community College and landing a full-time job at KOMO-TV in Seattle as a Videotape Librarian.   

By that time, at thirteen years of age, I expressed a longing to know my father and my California Indian relatives; thanks to my mother’s example, I was also beginning to imagine going to college myself someday.  Knowing she could never afford a four-year university tuition on her own, my mother contacted my father, asking for his help in putting together my genealogy.  She hoped that the BIA would issue a blood quantum decision that would allow me to apply for scholarships open to Native Americans.  

 I think my mother also sensed my hunger for the other half of my heritage – my father, older half-sisters, aunties and uncles and cousins who looked like me, and a homeland whose towns, streets, mountains, rivers and beaches I could name, but had only gone back to visit once or twice.

She had no idea that she was walking into the hornet’s nest that was and still is the BIA, but then my mother was always tougher than she looked.  Thanks to the BIA’s epic, bureaucratic, and historic dysfunction, my mother became what she called an “accidental genealogist.” Fortunately, it turned out to be her life’s passion, and Madgel Miranda turned out to be a tenacious researcher.  This hunt also reconnected me with my Indian father (in fact, he moved to Washington and my parents reunited for a time; even though that didn’t work out, my father lived nearby the rest of his life), my little (half) brother Al, and that side of my family, and introduced us all to the on-going reformation of the Esselen Nation and the work towards Federal Recognition.  

Although I eventually earned a B.S. in Special Needs Teaching from Wheelock College in Boston (1983), I still felt my primary work in the world was as a writer.  After teaching for five years, I returned to the Seattle area and began raising two children of my own as well as writing and publishing poetry; finally, in 1995, I applied to the University of Washington’s Graduate English Department.

My mother died in November 2001 from lung cancer, just five months after she and my father saw me graduate with my Ph.D. in English Literature at the age of 40. Long since separated but still bound together by love, history and blood, my parents had sat together at the UW’s Native student graduation feast and ceremony in the Daybreak Star lodge, along with my two children.  

 My mother’s death was an unexpected blow – she was only 66, just retired, and the cancer had snuck up on her without warning.  No, she never was able to get me that BIA stamp of approval, and I graduated with big student loans to pay back.  But my mother left behind my real inheritance: a relationship with my father (no matter how fraught with conflict, it was still a relationship that helped me form my identity as a Native woman), about ten banker’s boxes full of painstaking research, and an amazing family tree that goes back to some of the first Native converts at Mission Carmel in 1770.  

Three years after my mother’s death, these boxes followed me from my first teaching job at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma to my new job at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, where I began having dreams about the ancestors whose were lives chronicled in reams of documentation.  Also in those boxes rattled a handful of old cassette tapes featuring my grandfather, Thomas Anthony Miranda, which my mother had started to transcribe but was unable to complete.
Thomas Anthony Miranda, circa 1955

            Originally, I began to finish the transcription of those stories as a way to feel close to my mother, whom I missed tremendously.  But I was quickly caught up in the rich material Tom’s stories opened up to me, a whole world of post-secularization experiences that both fascinated me and broke my heart with grief for what our ancestors had experienced.  I moved from the tapes to the other papers contained in my mother’s boxes, including a handful of notes from J.P. Harrington’s collection featuring Isabel Meadows.  As I’ve done all my life, I began to write out my responses in order to understand what I read.  Poems, stories, and essays began to form, as did artistic responses to documents like blood quantum charts, BIA enrollment forms, and material related to mission lands.   At last, I realized that this was a huge project, nearly overwhelming, and would require serious dedication of time, resources and energy.

            I took the first step by applying for, and receiving, a grant from the American Philosophical Society to have my grandfather’s tapes transferred to CDs.  A series of these stories were published in News from Native California under the title, “The Light from Carissa Plains.”  Next, I proposed a sabbatical project under the same name and received a year-long fellowship from UCLA to work on the book there.  I had been born at UCLA Hospital, so returning to that campus to work on a book about my family seemed like the Universe was giving me its blessing for the project.  With my older half-sister Louise J. Miranda Ramirez, Chair of the Esselen Nation, close by, archives all around, and the homelands of my ancestors stretching out in every direction, my time in California was intense –  painful, exhausting, and exhilarating, often simultaneously. 

            After ten months of non-stop research and writing, I had the bones of the book.  I continued writing and revising for another four years while teaching full-time, receiving several Lenfest Summer Grants from my institution, Washington and Lee University, to support travel to the Smithsonian in D.C., and back to California.  At one point, my colleague Chris Gavaler read over my manuscript and encouraged me to change the title from The Light from Carissa Plains to the much more descriptive Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, taking the title from one of the poems.

            Early on, I knew I wanted Heyday to publish this book.  In addition to Heyday’s dedication to California Indian publications, I’d long admired their book Only What We Could Carry, a collection of documents, poetry, prose and artwork about the Japanese Internment Camps.  I knew that Heyday would be able to handle the kind of multi-genre manuscript that I had in mind for Bad Indians.  But when I sent the early manuscript to publisher Malcolm Margolin, he felt it was still too unpolished, more successful as a handful of vignettes than as a cohesive book. 
             Disappointed but not crushed, I spent several more years writing and fine-tuning the book so that its form and content reflected the vision I had in my head.  During this time, my father also passed away from complications of diabetes; he had never fully understood my need to tell the harsher stories of our family and tribal history, and now he would never see the finished piece, never experience the healing I hoped the book would encourage.  I felt that the California Indian community needed this book now more than ever, and submitted the manuscript to a university publisher whose editor had expressed interest.  Unfortunately, the press's marketing director found the project to be unmarketable.  I sent the manuscript off to another publisher who expressed strong interest, but they kept the manuscript for an extended period of time without giving me a solid response.  This lengthy period of multiple submissions is the norm for trying to get a book published, but in frustration, I told that publisher I was sending the manuscript elsewhere, and sent my precious package off to Malcolm Margolin again. 

            That good man sat down and read it immediately, and wrote me a heartfelt note that led to a signed contract not too much later.  I’d known all along he would understand the depth and breadth of this book if I could just get it right, and I’m grateful that he was willing to re-read it after enduring that earlier, very rough draft.

            I wish my mother could be here to see the completion of this project.  She has been at my side all these ten years of writing, reading, researching, dreaming, and revising.  I wish my father could hold this book in his hands and see why healing requires us to expose and relive some of the most painful personal and ancestral experiences; perhaps he would have seen how those genealogies of violence in our blood are tied to survival and renewal.  Perhaps he would have forgiven those who hurt him, and whose hurt he passed on to his children.  Perhaps he would have begun to forgive himself. 

            I like to think that both of my parents would both be more than pleased to see how our collaborative work has become a memorial and testimony for the Ancestors, and a contribution to the renaissance of California Indian culture.  I like to imagine my parents would see how, despite my removal from Indian family and homelands at the age of three due to difficulties in their own lives, they each managed to help me find a kind of wholeness at last.

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